By LARRY NEUMEISTER
Groovy is over, hip is square, far out is long gone. Don’t worry, though _
“Cool” remains the gold standard of slang in the 21st century, as reliable as
a blue-chip stock, surviving like few expressions ever in our constantly
evolving language. It has kept its cool through the centuries _ even as its
meaning changed drastically.
How cool is that?
Way cool, say experts who interpret slang for their messages about
“Cool is certainly a charter member for the slang hall of fame,” says Robert
Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture. “Cool just sits
back and keeps getting used generation after generation and lets the whole
history of the language roll off its back.”
Thompson estimates he uses the word 50 times a day “as an egghead professor”
because no other word quite does the job. He says its versatility helps explain
its staying power.
It is the all-purpose word for OK, good, great, terrific and every gradation
in between, often pronounced nowadays as “kewl.”
Before it became slang, cool was, of course, a literal reference to
temperature, and later a favorite metaphor of writers as far back as Chaucer in
the 1300s. In 1602, Shakespeare wrote that Queen Gertrude told Hamlet: “O gentle
son, Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper, Sprinkle cool patience.”
By the 17th century, the word helped define a woman’s ability to allay a
man’s passion through sex. During the horse-and-buggy era, “cooling one’s heels”
described the need to rest a horse with overheated hooves. The 1800s saw the use
of “cool off,” meaning to kill, and the “cool customer.”
Early in the 20th century, it was used to refer to large amounts of money: “a
cool million.” In the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge’s White House campaign slogan was
“Keep Cool With Coolidge.” By the 1930s, “cool as a cucumber” was “the bee’s
knees” _ slang of the era for “excellent.”
But by the 1940s, cool gained popularity through its use in jazz clubs, where
musicians employed a word that had already enjoyed wide use among blacks.
The 1997 book “America in So Many Words” traces the modern usage of cool to
the late 1940s. In 1947, the book notes, the Charlie Parker Quartet recorded
A year later, Life magazine titled an article “Bebop: New Jazz School Is Led
by Trumpeter Who Is Hot, Cool and Gone.” And in 1948, The New Yorker said “the
bebop people have a language of their own. … Their expressions of approval
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley,
says the word should have faded away at the end of the ’50s. Instead, it was
adopted and redefined by hippies, followed by surfers, rappers and techno-geeks.
“Click here for cool stuff,” Web sites say.
Peter N. Stearns, a social historian at George Mason University and author of
the book “American Cool,” says cool went mainstream in the 1950s and ’60s
because society needed a word to express attitude without anger.
“We were dealing with a culture that was placing an increasing premium on
controlling emotion, particularly anger,” he says. The hippies in the 1960s used
the word to “promote the notion that they were relaxed and not angry.”
Since then, he says, the expression has lost some of its vigor because of
overuse. “When we say somebody’s looking cool, we don’t have as much sense of
meaning as we did 40 years ago,” he says. “Now we just mean he’s looking
Thompson says there is no reason to believe that cool will ever go the way of
linguistic dinosaurs like “bad” (meaning good), or “chill” (meaning cool off) or
“groovy,” which sounds so “Brady Bunch.”
“Cool is already firmly ensconced in several generations,” he says. “It’s got
street cred. And it had street cred before we even used the word ’street cred.’”